Beta reading relationships are a great way of being held accountable in your writing practice. In this first part of a series on how to shape a beta reader relationship, we look at critiquing partners and talk to a pair of writers who met on a writing course – and have been reading and giving feedback on each other’s writing ever since.
Finding critiquing partners
Writers Rachel and Ian met on a fiction writing course. Although the pair talked during the week it wasn’t until they emailed each other after the course that they realised that a writing rapport had been built up – based on being honest about each other’s writing.
“It was clear to me during our week at Lumb Bank (a residential writing centre in the UK) that while we were writing very different stories, we shared a similar outlook and perspective” said Rachel. “I was keen to work with Ian as he gave such honest and direct feedback to fellow participants throughout the course so I knew that he’d tell me the truth rather than what I wanted to hear.”
Ian had no qualms about sending his work to Rachel as he already respected her judgement from being on the course with her. “I did have some initial concerns about the level of commitment it might involve – reading and commenting on a lot of writing – but I looked forward to getting comments. I think perhaps to begin with I was careful about making comments but we very quickly established a direct, constructively critical approach,” he said.
“I was careful about making comments but we very quickly established a direct, constructively critical approach.”
Takeaway: Before embarking on a critiquing partnership think of what you want from it, what sort of writer – such as format or genre – and approach might work for you. It’s also important to consider the practicalities, how long it might take, and how you’ll fit this in alongside your writing.
Learning how to give feedback
Both, however, experienced trepidation sending off the first piece of work to each other for review.
“I was desperately hoping that he was going to love it,” said Rachel, “and that I wasn’t going to need to make any amendments, but that was obviously completely unrealistic! Ian’s comments are well considered and tactfully put and always helpful.”
Both agree that exchanging comments has been a real boost to their writing. Ian said: “Rachel’s feedback is the most helpful thing I’ve had since I started because she has such an insight into character, sees inconsistencies in fact and characterisation, and asks questions about things I take for granted. She also suggests new ways of increasing tension and showing feeling.”
When a critiquing partnership is new, it can be hard giving feedback – will you be too harsh and upset someone or offer general praise and not provide any insight? It takes time to build trust, learn what it useful and prioritise the most important feedback to give.
Takeaway: At the beginning of the partnership have an honest conversation about what you want to get from it. Talk about any areas you need help on. When you exchange writing, be specific if there are certain you’d like to get feedback on – it’s OK to ask questions. That helps both partners focus their efforts where it’s most effective.
Learning how to receive feedback
Whilst Ian is writing a novel about how being brought up in a strict religious family impacts a person throughout their life, Rachel writes contemporary women’s fiction.
“It’s fascinating to have a male perspective on my writing,” said Rachel “but sometimes it can be tempting to ignore feedback I don’t like on the basis that he isn’t my target audience.”
The two writers are different in many ways – age, gender, and genre of writing – and this can be a real strength. This partnership is about critiquing not market testing a book, so celebrate difference. Rachel learned to filter feedback from Ian and use that to improve her writing.
Takeaway: When you receive feedback, you need to filter what’s relevant. It’s OK to reject feedback if it’s not helpful – for example, if it won’t resonate with your target reader, or doesn’t match your genre or writing format. As the relationship develops, you’ll work out what’s most effective – keep communicating and feeding back on the feedback.
Accountability and keeping going
Rachel’s input has been central to Ian continuing with his writing. “I just don’t think I’d have continued if I hadn’t had Rachel’s input,’ he said. “She’s really kept me going. Other people have read my work but no one else reads it in the same critical way as she does, nor do they have as clear a grip on the story.”
Having a writing partner has also been key to helping Rachel to keep motivated with her work. She explains: “The greatest benefit of Ian’s constructive criticism is that it’s kept me writing. Knowing that you have a balanced and interested critic provides a great incentive to keep going as you look forward to sending off your work and receiving that email back from them.”
“Accountability super charges your ability to get things done.”
People are much more likely to stick to deadlines if they know someone is waiting for them, especially if it is an equal relationship, based on reciprocity – you both benefit if you stick with it. Accountability super charges your ability to get things done.
Takeaway: Critiquing partners keep you on track. Agree deadlines together and stick to them – you’ll be amazed how much progress you make when you commit to another person.
Commitment and trust
Once you’ve found your partner, you need to commit to making it work – and it’s not something to take lightly.
“Don’t enter into this kind of relationship with someone purely on the basis that you’re both willing to ‘give it a go’,” said Rachel.
“Having a writing buddy requires a great deal of trust and a willingness to be honest about someone else’s work, even when you worry that you’re being brutal. It is also a huge commitment in terms of time – but one that is well worth it.”
Like all relationships, you need to be honest and communicate effectively to make it work. Over time the relationship will develop. This is exactly what happened for Ian and Rachel.
“If you’re able to find just one person on your wavelength and who’s prepared to be a continuing honest, critical friend, then try to maintain a relationship.”
“If you’re able to find just one person on your wavelength and who’s prepared to be a continuing honest, critical friend, then try to maintain a relationship,” said Ian, “but only do so if you are sure you’re willing to share your writing with them – and to accept that they might not always like what you’ve written!”
Takeaway: Be realistic about the commitment required. Also, remember that a critiquing partner won’t always like your writing. Awareness of these will help you avoid getting overwhelmed and upset.
Advice on working with critiquing partners
Once you’ve found a partner it takes time to become a good beta reader. Here are a few ideas to help you develop your skills.
- Remember you are critiquing the writing not the writer.
- Be honest, objective and respectful.
- Offer feedback on strengths and weaknesses.
- Be specific in your feedback and give examples.
- Use constructive language, especially when dealing with negatives.
- Set deadlines for reading and offering feedback.
- Learn to listen to feedback and take it on board.
- Give the relationship time to develop as you learn each other styles.